Walter Mosley speaks to Center For the Arts as fourth Distinguished Speaker
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 00:03
Walter Mosley identifies himself as a black man.
He says this is a truth, and this is a lie. It is also an over-simplification, a confused notion and a declaration of war.
He knows his skin is not black and not quite white, and it is definitely not any shade of brown, he said.
He is an American, but he’s not sure that description is appropriate, either. He thinks “America” is a better fit. This is not a political statement but rather a response to his culture being ripped from his ancestors.
“I am an American from the soles of my feet to the hair that once adorned my bald head,” Mosley beamed in defiance as he articulated his concept of race. “American is what I am, but it’s not my history. I am America. Through my veins runs 10,000 years of history that touches every continent, deity and crime known to man.”
Mosley, 61, an acclaimed author of more than 40 books, spoke as the 37th Martin Luther King, Jr. speaker and the fourth installment of the 27th-annual Distinguished Speakers Series on Thursday night at the Center For the Arts Mainstage Theater.
He’s best known for his crime novels, but his work spans everything from literary fiction to non-fiction and young adult science fiction to political essays – but Mosley doesn’t define himself by a single genre.
“Everything is political; everything is social,” Mosley told The Spectrum on Thursday afternoon. “I don’t see anything different in anything I do.”
Mosley, who was born in post-World War II Los Angeles, has a worldview that transcends color and race. Born to a Jewish mother and a black father, Mosley believes the only true race is human. He’s interested in a process that is greater than one specific talk at UB; he wants to further the dialogue that King started in the ’50s.
His speech was more about political commentary than about his work as a writer, and it flowed more as poetry than prose. His rhythmic cadence was only broken by short anecdotes.
Mosley explained that people who say they would stand with King against racism would not really do so today. Everyone heralds King as a hero, but, in fact, everybody hated King, he said. King took the beliefs the American public held and turned them upside down, saying, “No, we’re not going to be like that anymore,” according to Mosley. Today’s followers would not want to be shot at – not only figuratively but literally, too – and Mosley joked he would be hiding in Canada rather than embracing the physical fight.
“If you’re going to embrace Martin Luther King, you have to embrace challenge,” Mosley said in his address. “You have to embrace the man – but not only one man, but many men and women, too – that knew they were going to die.”
The modern concept of race is not defined by skin color, culture or religion – it is defined by economics and the white man’s “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” he explained. Race didn’t exist until people migrated to America, and with this Diaspora, people became red, black and white.
“The modern concept of race, that is to say color, meant no more to the African than it did to the ancient inhabitants of Europe,” Mosley orated to the captivated crowd. “Identity for the African was defined by art and language and religion and the food that people ate. In America, separated out from common language groups and tribal affiliations, the African became the black man.”
Just as the black man didn’t exist in Africa, the white man didn’t exist in Europe, he said. The naming of color as race became a unifying factor and a great divider. As white men united under a skin color, despite cultural differences, people from Africa became bound under the color black. Race is not color, though; it is an economic coding system, according to Mosley. It’s simple to define but hard to avoid, he said.
“There are no black men, but I am a black man,” he said. “I know this sentence as a fact. There is no white race but I can labor under the oppression of a white race for centuries. This is undoubtedly true.”
This logic can be broken by looking in the mirror. When we look in the mirror, we all see the same thing: the self, according to Mosley. The identity of self transcends race, gender, language and history.
“‘Joe’ never asks, ‘who is that white man in the mirror?’ ‘Jamal’ never wonders, ‘who is that brown man on the other side?’ Race and personal identity … are easily separated,” he declared. “Who am I? I am Walter Mosley.”
Because “Joe” and “Jamal” see their selves when looking in the mirror, Joe equals Jamal, Mosley said. The color of their skin is irrelevant in the bigger reflection.
To go beyond this stigma and oppression of skin color, white people must deny the tag of race, he said. White people, along with the rest of the world’s races, are human citizens – whether they know it or not.
“[White people should] deny their race and replace it with the notion of humanity,” Mosley said. “White identity, albeit unconsciously, was created for the expressed purpose of domination.
“If I gave up my so-called blackness, your so-called whiteness will still be held over and against me. But if you stop being white, the course of history will be instantly and irrefragably changed.”
Things are changing in America, and maybe the younger generation knows something the older people didn’t, according to Mosley. But he doesn’t have all the answers. He hoped his speech would further the conversation started by King over 60 years ago.